Note: This story appears in the September 2011 issue of THE RING magazine, which is available now on newsstands or in our new digital format.
“The world is a stage, and I will always be one of the principle actors.” – Archie Moore, 1966
When looking back on Archie Moore’s extraordinary boxing career, we tend to think of him as a kind of traveling one-man circus. He was the ringmaster, clown, magician, and the fellow who would challenge any member of the audience to a brawl. Hands down, he was the most colorful, most interesting and most loquacious fighter of his generation, a sportswriter’s dream. But what is sometimes forgotten is that for a few months in 1960, it seemed as if Moore were going to dump the whole boxing gig, light heavyweight championship and all, to become a movie star. That’s what many were thinking when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cast Moore in a big-budget, Cinemascope and Technicolor version of Mark Twain’s most celebrated novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Of course, Moore didn’t stop boxing. He had several more fights after his acting debut, including a disastrous loss to a young Cassius Marcellus Clay, but if ever there was a fighter who could have left the Byzantine world of boxing for movies, it was Archie Moore. He had the goods.
Fighters since the days of John L. Sullivan had gravitated toward show business, but few had ever matched the buzz created by Moore’s try-out at MGM. Some called Moore’s test loop “one of the best in studio history.” Moore, 46 at the time, was at the height of his fame in those days, appearing on TV shows like What’s My Line? and You Bet Your Life. Producer Norman Lloyd thought Moore would be perfect for the role of Jim, the runaway slave who befriends Huck Finn. Script pages were sent; an audition was arranged.
Director Michael Curtiz, who’d directed such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, called Moore’s screen test “remarkable.” The camera crew reportedly broke into spontaneous applause when Moore finished. “It made me feel good, but I suppose they do that for everybody,” Moore said.
Unlike most fighters, Moore wasn’t stiff and self-conscious. He was articulate. He could emote. His voice was soft, but with a small amount of grit in it, bred by years of shotgun shacks and hard travel. Could he do the Mississippi dialect? Hell, he was born there. Moore’s physical appearance was also unique. If casting agents didn’t have a category for aging gunslinger-Buddhas, they created one the day they saw Moore. Then there were the eyebrows, once described by A.J. Liebling as “rising like storm clouds over the Sea of Azov.” Punctuating the entire look was Moore’s eyes, tiny dark buttons hinting at mischief, wisdom, delight, and danger.
The Finn project, which had been lingering around MGM for nearly a decade, would kick off once and for all with the signing of Moore. “I must have some natural talent,” Moore said. “Otherwise these people wouldn’t be bothering me.” After a pit stop in Montreal to dispose of Yvon Durelle for the second time, Moore began teasing sportswriters about his future.
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